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Russia: Powell In Moscow For What Some See As Frank Talks

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is in Moscow today for talks with top Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin. The visit comes at a time of some strain in the countries' bilateral relationship over disagreements in Iraq and other issues. In comments after the talks, both Putin and Powell affirmed that relations remain strong. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini looks at what tensions might lie below the surface.

Moscow, 26 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- At least in public, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian President Vladimir Putin today reaffirmed the strength of U.S.-Russian bilateral ties.

Speaking after meeting with Powell in Moscow, Putin told reporters he believes the foundations of Russian-American ties are "sufficiently strong to enable us to overcome present disagreements." He cited the economy, the war on terror, and Afghanistan as good examples of bilateral cooperation.

"Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet fully tethered to law." -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell
"Our trade and economic relations are developing well. We are strengthening our cooperation in the fight against terrorism. We are working quite closely together in Afghanistan."

Putin also pointed to Iraq and said Russia supports the return of the United Nations to the country. Last year, the Iraq war was one of a number of key issues on which the two countries disagreed.

"The discussion on resolving the Iraqi situation is continuing. Just like you, we also believe the United Nations must return to Iraq. You know that in Moscow we held talks with the [U.S.-appointed] Iraqi Governing Council. We think the fact that these talks took place demonstrates moral and political support for the Iraqi Governing Council."

Powell was equally polite in return. In his public comments, he stressed the close working relationship between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush. Powell said even in areas where the two countries disagree, the "strength of our relations helps us to address contentious matters openly and honestly."

The conversation, however, may have been less diplomatic in private. Powell's visit follows a cooling of relations between the two countries after their disagreement in Iraq last year and a number of other U.S. concerns. In particular, Washington was troubled by the December Duma elections that swept Russia's main liberal parties from the parliament and the arrest last year of billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovskii.

Powell didn't mince words in an editorial in today's "Izvestiya" -- published this morning ahead of his talks with Putin. Powell wrote: "Russia's democratic system seems not yet to have found the essential balance among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Political power is not yet fully tethered to law. Key aspects of civil society -- free media and political party development, for example -- have not yet sustained an independent presence."

Andrew Kuchins, the head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, says a number of events came together late last year to strain ties. He cites the election in Chechnya that was widely viewed as not meeting democratic standards as well as the Duma vote.

"Well, I'm not sure what straw broke the camel's back, but there was a much heavier burden placed on the camel's back over the course of October, November, December, and it was the combination of these things happening. The foreign policy side of things as well as what was happening internally [in Russia] that led many in the Bush administration to reconsider whether the U.S. should have a strong partnership with Russia."

The U.S. is said to be particularly concerned with Russian policy in the former Soviet states of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Powell was in Georgia yesterday to attend the inauguration of President Mikheil Saakashvili. His appearance in Tbilisi was widely seen as strong support for the new president, a U.S.-trained lawyer.

Powell used the opportunity to reiterate Washington's position that it expects Moscow to pull out its military from Georgia according to its commitments made at an international meeting in 1999.

"In my meetings tomorrow in Moscow [with the Russian government], I expect that we will discuss our mutual interests in seeing a secure, stable, and democratic Georgia," he said. "And I once again reinforce to my Russian colleagues that we expect Moscow to abide by the Istanbul commitments of 1999. And I think we will have a full discussion of all of the issues relating to Georgian security and the need for all of us to cooperate in assisting the president [of Georgia] in the challenging work that he has ahead of him."

Under the 1999 Istanbul agreement, Russia was to close two bases by July 2001, and negotiate with Georgia toward closure of two other bases, at Batumi and Akhalkalaki. Russia is now demanding to postpone the closure of the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases until 2014 and is seeking financial compensation for the relocation costs.

Powell, however, appeared to ease Russian concerns that the U.S. may be seeking to build up its own military presence in Georgia. He told journalists yesterday in Tbilisi that Washington does not want to establish U.S. military bases in Georgia.

"Whatever we do with Georgia will be a matter of discussion between the two countries, but we are not looking for bases. And the concern that we often hear expressed is misplaced."

In Moldova, the U.S. is also concerned that Russia is delaying removing troops and weapons from that country. This was another pledge Russia made in 1999 that it has not kept.

Little change in U.S.-Russian ties are expected from the visit. "Izvestiya" notes that both Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush face re-election this year. This means, the paper says, both will shy away from taking any major steps that could prove controversial.

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